Just nine years ago, Steve Ensminger was 50 years old, and his next job was going to be as the passing game coordinator at Smiths Station High School, 33 miles east of Auburn, Alabama, for the 2009 season.
Not exactly upwardly mobile. Not as offensive coordinator, mind you — passing game coordinator. It was his third high school job in 10 years. He was the head coach and athletic director at Central High outside his native Baton Rouge in 2000 and 2001. He was receivers coach at West Monroe High in 2002 before catching on at Auburn in 2003 as quarterbacks coach. A demotion followed, and he was tight ends coach from 2004-08. Then, there was the signpost up ahead. His next stop – The Twilight Zone at Smiths Station.
Then-LSU coach Les Miles rescued Ensminger and hired him as tight ends coach in 2010. As Miles’ national champion star faded in 2014, Ensminger was viewed as someone who might get fired.
When Ensminger turns 60 on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, he will be calling plays for his LSU alma mater, not far from Smiths Station at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama, as the Tigers will be playing the Tigers in their Southeastern Conference opener. Calling plays, not as the passing game coordinator or the quarterbacks coach, mind you, but as LSU’s Offensive Coordinator. He will have likely slept in his office a time or two that week.
“You never expect it,” said Ensminger, who dreamed of being LSU’s offensive coordinator as his career started as a receivers coach at Nicholls State in 1982 when he was 23 and with his first offensive coordinator job at McNeese State from 1984-86 when he met a young graduate assistant from Galliano named Ed Orgeron.
“He’s not just one of our own,” Orgeron said in introducing Ensminger. “He is also the best coach to lead LSU’s offense in the coming years. I do believe that with all my heart. I am 100 percent convinced of that from what I’ve seen this man do on a daily basis.”
Orgeron was asked why he didn’t make the same move last year when he hired 45-year-old Matt Canada instead.
“I thought about it,” Orgeron said.
Ensminger may have answered that question during his introductory press conference last Thursday. “Hell, I’m 59 years old,” he said. “I’ve had a great career. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it. My family’s enjoyed it. Just imagine growing up as kids, and all you did was go to college football games. Hell, THEY’VE had a great career.”
But instead of coasting off into the sunset as a tight ends coach at his alma mater, the former LSU quarterback will now try to save his school’s long suffering pass offense. His career is starting over again. His family knows how to move, that’s for sure. Ensminger is on job No. 11. The LSU job in 2010 was his fifth in 10 years. His family knows about getting fired, too. And they have experienced their dad get his dream job when they are old enough to enjoy it that much more. It didn’t happen when he was hot in the early 1990s and through that decade as quarterback coach at Georgia and the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Clemson.
“I’ve spent my whole career thinking about this opportunity, OK,” he said. “Playing quarterback right over across the street, right there in Tiger Stadium for Charlie Mac, uh, I tell you, it’s a …”
And he had to stop after mentioning that stadium and that late LSU coach, Charles McClendon. He choked up.
He choked up again when he mentioned that he and his wife Amy were flipping channels in bed last Wednesday night and stumbled upon “Miracle,” a movie about the 1980 U.S. gold medal winning hockey team that upset Russia, which was the Alabama of the time in that sport. He paused another 10 seconds before he could call another play.
“In the talk before the game, the coach (the late Herb Brooks played by Kurt Russell) said, ‘Great moments are born on great opportunity,'” Ensminger said with a crackling voice as his family sat in the audience in the LSU team room. “This is my opportunity. And I embrace it. I look forward to it. And I promise you, I will make this state proud.”
It was one of several poignant moments from a true LSU man.
But much of the state is not so proud of him just yet and does not care that much where he went to school. Throngs of LSU fans are cursing this hire, and that is understandable. Canada, whom Ensminger replaces after one year, was supposed to be the savior. But Orgeron basically pulled a Miles and couldn’t keep his hands out of the kitchen. Both went into a slow burn, and soon everything exploded.
LSU fans are running out of Prozac as it is, was and has been. There was a seventh straight loss to Alabama and a sixth straight three-or-more loss season in 2017. Jimbo Fisher went to Texas A&M, which meant he would’ve gone to LSU if athletic director Joe Alleva knew what he was doing. LSU lost the bowl game. There was another Alabama national championship, and still no quarterback signee who was not identified by Miles, who never identified a good quarterback out of high school in 12 years on the job.
Ensminger is not a hot offensive coordinator. He’s 59 and looks older. He is the Ancient Mariner coordinator. He was a high school coach at three places more recently than he was a full-time offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Clemson in 1998. Clemson went 3-8 and 1-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference that year. They all got fired. He was fired after the 1996 season at Texas A&M.
Lately, he has not been sought to coach anywhere. Orgeron, his old friend from McNeese, promoted him to offensive coordinator at LSU in 2016, and he had some very impressive and some very unimpressive results.
But he is not the oldest coach on LSU’s staff … as of last week, that is. LSU confirmed the previously reported story that Jerry Sullivan, a 73-year-old former NFL and LSU receivers coach, will be passing game coordinator for the Tigers in 2018.
Ensminger is clearly not a sexy hire. But he is a better offensive coordinator hire for the SEC than were the last two by Miles – Greg Studrawa from the offensive line and Cam Cameron from the NFL. Neither were ever upper level college offensive coordinators like Ensminger, and it eventually showed.
This could work out, particularly if Ensminger develops or locates a decent quarterback as good as Danny Etling. LSU fans will be pleasantly surprised with Ensminger. The last thing LSU’s offensive players need is another hot coach coming in and changing everything in consecutive seasons. They know Ensminger, and he knows them. And he had more and more to do with the offense in 2017 as Orgeron and Canada grew more and more apart as did Frank and Claire Underwood.
“You know what? I’m the guy who knows these players,” Ensminger said. “I’m the one who knows those players. I’m the one guy who knows our receivers, our quarterbacks, our offensive line. And you know what? I’m the one guy to lead ’em.”
All right! He may not have wanted the job permanently in 2016, but he does now. He sure sounded like it, and Ensminger is no performer. He cries. He cusses. He coaches. He sleeps in the office.
Ensminger ran a decent offense in 2016 and late in ‘17, and he will run another decent one in 2018. There will be problems, but that will be more because of a lack of quarterback maturity or talent, or both.
After Orgeron’s mistaken firing of Canada after just one season in which the offense improved, Orgeron was not going to be able to hire someone of equal hotness. Who would come work for him after what he and Alleva did to Canada? Ensminger knew Orgeron needed him. He knew his school needed him.
And he’s ready.
Orgeron had to settle on Ensminger as Alleva settled on Orgeron. Both failed with their original targets – Orgeron with Canada and Alleva with Tom Herman. Each are off to a rough start, but it could still happen.
Ensminger has common sense. He knows offenses. He knows his personnel. And he knows what will work. He’s not trying to invent anything. He’s seen it all. And if Sullivan can instill parts of LSU’s passing game from 1986-89 – the best short passing game the school ever had – that will help immensely.
He is a retread, but Ensminger was as vibrant and passionate as a 29-year-old on Thursday.
If he can recruit better quarterbacks in and out of this state and develop them, he could be LSU’s offensive coordinator until he reaches retirement age.
And if you don’t like this hire, Ensminger has a message for you.
“I don’t read the damn paper. I don’t read Twitter,” he said, though he does have a Twitter account. “I don’t go on Facebook. And I tell my family, ‘Stay off of it.’ Because, you know what? All I can do is what I can do, and I can’t let any outside influences say, ‘Hey, well, you’re not good enough.’ Or, ‘You can’t do this.’ BULL (expletive deleted)! OK. I’ll do it.”
I’m sold. Steve Ensminger will be a good offensive coordinator at LSU. No BS.
Now, go sign a quarterback or two.